[EDITOR’S NOTE: This post is part of our series on controversial questions. A NO post will normally follow a YES post. Join in by posting your comments.]
by Elgin Hushbeck, Jr.
One of the hardest aspects of the Christian walk is balance. The Bible teaches us many values, some of which at times are in conflict. Whether it be compassion and justice, truth and love, or any number of competing values, rarely does it seem that the body of Christ has the right balance and when it does, sadly it is not for long. This is, I believe, the case when it comes to the rejection of the death penalty.
A qualification needs to be made here. Support for the death penalty does not mean support in all cases. When it comes to individual cases, the death penalty can be rejected on any number of practical grounds from the motivation for the crime, extenuating circumstances, etc. So the question is not are there times it should be rejected, but rather is there ever a time it should be applied?
A popular reason for rejecting the death penalty completely is that it precludes correction in the event of a mistake, but this is more of a practical objection than one grounded in Christianity. The same could be said about all punishments once the person punished dies. Nor does this address those cases in which there is no doubt and thus no room for error.
Ultimately we must separate the question of when the death penalty should be applied, from should Christians endorse it at all. Should a person who commits particularly heinous murders of innocent people, where there is no doubt about their guilt and no justification for their crime, people such as the Oklahoma City Bomber, or the Colorado Movie theater murderer, be put to death?
Biblically this is pretty easy. The death penalty is taught in both the Old and New Testament. In fact, a sign of the importance of the law is the fact that there is only one law that is given in all five books of the Torah; that murderers are to be put to death. This is also taught in the New Testament as a legitimate power of government in Acts 25:10-11 and Rom 13: 1-4.
While there are also examples of compassion, these cannot be legitimately seen as anything more than what they are, example of compassion. It should be noted that the act of compassion requires an exception to a rule based on the circumstances. If the rule says you cannot cross the street in the middle of the block, but a police officer sees that you are in a real hurry, and lets you cross anyway, he has shown you compassion. If the rule is that you can always cross, there would be no compassionate in his letting you cross.
In addition compassion must be limited based on circumstances, lest it become harmful. As the Jewish saying goes, compassion for the cruel, become cruelty to the innocent.
Others argue that the death penalty conflicts with our Christian duty to forgive. While there is not space to go into detail here, I believe this is based on a misunderstanding of our duty. More to the point, whatever the duty we as Christian have to forgive, murder is both a crime against an individual on the one hand, and society on the other, often leaving a wreckage of devastation for numerous others in between. While we, as individuals, may forgive murders that is not the same thing as the state forgiving them. Then again, if taken literally, it would argue that we should not have any punishment at all. After all, if our forgiveness precludes the death penalty, why doesn’t it preclude life in prison, or any punishment for that matter?
The real problem is that the persons most affect, those who were murdered, are no longer around to forgive, thus in a very real sense earthly forgiveness is impossible.
Some argue that Christians cannot support the death penalty because all killing is wrong. Other than a mistranslation of the 6th commandment (you shall not kill instead of you shall not murder) I see no support for such a view in the Bible.
On the other hand, it is quite easy to come up with examples of instances of where I believe not only would it be OK to kill, but where not killing would be immoral. For example say a killer was in a preschool killing children. If killing him was the only way to stop him, and yet instead you allow him to continue his murder spree, your inaction would be immoral.
Finally, some argue that the death penalty cheapens human life. Far from it, the ultimate punishment, for the ultimate crime is a statement of how important human life is. What cheapens human life, and causes great suffering to at least some of the family members and loved ones of those murdered, is the fact that while their victim is gone from this earth, their murderer continues to live life. Sure they are in prison, but they still live, laugh, see the latest movies, visit with their families, and in some cases get married and have families, things that their victims will never do. Long after the memory of their victims and their crime fades some build up followings of supporters pleading their case, and thus tormenting their victims’ families even more. Compassion for the guilty, is often cruelty for the innocent. But then the victim is gone while the murderer remains in the news, and in our visual based culture, “face time” is what matters.
One the best things that happen with the execution of the Oklahoma City Bomber, is that despite being a routine fixture in the news from the time of the bombing until his much deserved execution, he virtually disappeared overnight from the public consciousness. All that remains is the memorial to the victims, the families of whom are still suffering from the damage that he did. He is gone, and that is how it should be.